Finding the Beauty in darkness
Lisa Kristine’s anti-slavery crusade
“Two Hundred Feet Below” taken in a mine in Ghana.
Lisa Kristine has seen things—things she can’t un-see, things that haunt her, things that compel her forward. With camera in hand, she sets out, again and again, to document the pain, the neglect, the atrocities that hide in dark corners and in plain sight across the globe.
“I consider myself a witness,” she says, her eyes pierced with a blue intensity that is almost unsettling. But it is her intensity, her passion, her genuine need to share the things she’s seen that makes her a whirlwind force in the world of art photography. Her work circles the globe, offering a visual taste of worlds others choose to ignore, bringing quiet beauty and dignity to faces some would prefer to forget.
From the gold mines in Ghana to the textile factories in India to the sex shops of Nepal, Lisa Kristine has made it her mission to document some of the 27 million people who live in modern-day slavery. “There are children who haul rocks, huge boulders bigger than they are. All day, hauling these rocks… We might have a piece of slate on our table and not even know where it came from,” she says, urgency in her voice. “We need to know,” she says, her eyes sad.
Kristine remembers a time when she didn’t know. In 2009, when, as the sole exhibitor at the Vancouver Peace Summit, where her work was seen by the Dalai Lama and Nobel Peace Prize laureates, she encountered Free the Slaves, an international nonprofit whose sole mission is to end slavery on earth. “I knew slavery existed, everyone has heard about trafficking. But I didn’t know it existed to such an extent in the world. I was just appalled at myself, angry,” she says with real venom in her voice. “I, who have been to seventy countries, six continents and who has spent so much time being aware of others. I thought, if I didn’t know about this, who else doesn’t?”
It became her mission to document human tragedies. Working with Free the Slaves, she spent 2010 traveling to mines, factories, brothels—anywhere people were being exploited. It was a risky endeavor, fraught with danger from those who preferred their indiscretions remain unseen. “I had guys on the lookout, and if they gave me the signal I knew I had to grab my camera and run like hell,” she recounts. While she admits her experiences were intense, she says she was never afraid. “I was so angry and I just wanted to be their witness, I wanted to be their torch bearer.”
Yes, Lisa Kristine has seen things. Her travels took her back to some of her favorite places on earth, but this time with new eyes, where she could openly see the cracks in the walls, the skeletons in the closet. She recalls being among the men, women and children enslaved in the 120-degree hell that is the brick kilns of India, a country close to her heart. “So pervasive was the heat and dust, my camera became too hot to touch and ceased functioning. I had to sprint back to our vehicle to clean my equipment and run my camera under the air conditioner every 20 minutes—a luxury slaves never have,” she wrote in her statement for the photo book Slavery. The book, with a forward written by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, has dozens of stunning, heartbreaking photos, along with eye-opening
descriptions of the horrors suffered daily by the most vulnerable members of society. All proceeds from the book benefit Free the Slaves, and Kristine is already shooting the next series of photos, with a trip to Haiti under her belt.
Other ventures have her documenting “the ancient,” those who are more than 100 years old, and working with the Bhutanese government to photograph “youth.” In January she released two new books, both of which look back at her 25 years in photography. One Breath is a collection of her favorite portraits, while The Intimate Expanse offers a sampling of her best landscape work.
In between her difficult and disquieting trips across the planet, she finds solace in her Mill Valley home with her children: a 5-year-old son, whom she adopted from Guatemala, and a 3-year-old daughter, who was born in Ethiopia. See her stories in pictures at lisakristine.com, or visit her Sonoma gallery, on the Plaza at 452 First Street East.